By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Moments later, a resident of the neighborhood ran to the firehouse of Engine 23. Within 20 minutes, 137 firefighters had arrived at the warehouse to battle the blaze.
None of them knew exactly what they were getting themselves into.
"It definitely is scary not knowing what's out there," says Bob Khan, Phoenix's assistant fire chief. "I stood in the water from that fire for 23 hours. I still don't know exactly what I was standing in."
Everyone Eliza Ranger loves lives within two blocks of her in the Villas East apartment complex.
Eliza's daughter, Diana, lives to the south of her. Granddaughter Tamica and grandson Kevin live to the north.
All have suffered because of the black cloud that rolled over their homes two years ago.
That evening, as Eliza's heart continued to sputter, Diana returned to the apartment complex from work. At the front gate her neighbors were filing into a bus. They were being evacuated.
But her mother wasn't there.
At first, police tried to stop Diana from entering the complex. She used a different entrance and finally reached her mother's apartment.
"She tells me, We've got to get out of here, they're evacuating everyone,'" Eliza says. "Nobody told me that. Nobody came to my door and did anything to tell me to clear out of here."
Emergency personnel missed numerous apartments as they went door to door telling people to leave.
That evening, Eliza's heart settled down. But the next morning, it was racing again.
She went to an emergency room in Tempe. Doctors said she was not having a heart attack. They said they weren't sure what was wrong with her.
She then went to Good Samaritan Hospital. Doctors there also were no help.
Finally, after exploratory surgery, a heart specialist placed her on nitroglycerin. Over time, her heart problems began to fade.
Her grandson, Kevin, suffered asthma attacks from breathing in the toxic vapors. Her great-granddaughter, Keosha, who also has asthma, now needs a respirator to help her breathe.
The Rangers are just a few of hundreds of people whose lives were changed for the worse that day.
Flora Bell Muldrow also wasn't evacuated. She slept through the night amid the toxins.
"When I woke up, my eyes were stuck together with gunk," she says. "It was like pink eye. And my throat was terribly sore and I had an awful headache."
As the days passed, Muldrow's vision deteriorated. She thought she was going blind. Doctors were of little help. She stopped driving because she couldn't see.
Like Eliza Ranger, Muldrow finally found a medical specialist who could help. Her problem, the doctor said, was that chemicals from the smoke had gotten trapped in her eyelid. Her vision returned after she had her eyes cleaned of the toxins.
However, her cough continued to get worse.
"It was such a raging cough I'd get to the place where I wanted to vomit," she says. "It was so embarrassing. I stopped going to church because I didn't want to make a scene."
Her cough has improved some, thanks to asthma inhalants.
This list of victims is staggering.
One-year-old Tyvaugn Harry had green ooze coming from her eyes after the fire.
Two-year-old Isaiah Roper was covered from head to toe with a rash.
Three-year-old Alviana Hayes had a runny nose, fever, breathing problems, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, watery eyes and a cough that won't go away.
Jamal Bradley, 7, had blood in his urine after the fire.
Nine-year-old Janice Jones' hair fell out.
Andrea Ybanez, 11, couldn't go to PE anymore because her asthma got so bad.
"I have four generations of my family here in south Phoenix," Flora Muldrow says. "We were all right here inhaling this stuff. They have poisoned my whole family."
Phoenix Fire Department officials called the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality at 5:05 p.m. August 2, 2000, just moments after the Central Garden fire was spotted. It is department protocol to call ADEQ the moment a fire is deemed to involve hazardous materials.
ADEQ, in turn, then dispatched its Hazardous Air Response Team, known as HART, or its Emergency Response Unit.
ADEQ's HART and ERU teams, however, didn't arrive on the scene until 6:17 p.m., more than an hour later.
They began setting up their monitoring equipment. Several times the equipment failed to get a proper reading.
Finally, at 6:25 p.m., ADEQ measurements showed high concentrations of acid in the air. It was time to evacuate the area.
However, the agency's testing equipment was not sophisticated enough to register what types of acids were in the air. The equipment also was incapable of testing for numerous other chemicals now known to have been released in the fire.
ADEQ, Arizona Department of Health Services and Phoenix city personnel began knocking on the doors of some, but not all, of the residents of Villas East. Many residents, like Eliza Ranger, were not evacuated.
Phoenix firemen wore protective masks to fight the fire. But many removed those masks as they retreated to a water station. Firemen began vomiting and having trouble breathing. Five firemen were treated for toxic smoke inhalation.